By Francesca Norsen Tate
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Congregation B’nai Avraham, which celebrates its 24th anniversary this coming week, has grown from a young rabbi’s vision to a vibrant Modern Orthodox synagogue with an outreach that benefits the neighborhood and beyond.
Four members and friends of Congregation B’nai Avraham who are being honored at a dinner on Tuesday describe the synagogue as a place where Jewish learning is a joy; and they praise Rabbi Aaron Raskin as a dynamic spiritual leader who exudes joy in teaching and welcoming.
Roger Satnick, Deborah Hallen-Zelinsky; Amit Cohen and Paul Amit; and William C. Thompson, Jr. are the honorees being recognized at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. Three are members; Bill Thompson and his father are both longtime friends who have helped build bridges between Jews and blacks, especially after the 1991 Crown Heights riots.
The vision of an Orthodox synagogue began in the summer of 1988, when Stephen and Penny Rosen, having recently become more observant, wanted to establish an orthodox Sabbath minyan. Together, they contacted Rabbi Shimon Hecht of B’nai Jacob in Park Slope, who supplied them with a Torah scroll, books, and a very young man to lead services and read from the Torah, according to B’nai Avraham’s website history.
The Rosens, along with friends, rented space pace from a local theater group, posted signs, placed calls, and prayed that others show up for the scheduled Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Initially participating were the Rosens, Drs. Walter and Brenda Molofsky, several former members of a local Conservative synagogue, and the aforementioned young man—Rabbi Raskin. His brother, Shua, who was recruited to walk from Crown Heights with the rabbi, joined them. There were enough other eligible people present to form a minyan (the required 10 males needed for formal prayer), and thus Brooklyn Heights’ first and only Orthodox Synagogue had its start.
The Rosens hosted the Shabbat morning and holiday services in their home for several months. The congregation was officially founded as a religious corporation in December 1988. The name chosen, B’nai Avraham, was significant in more than one way: It was named Stephen Rosen’s grandfathers, both of whose Hebrew names were Abraham. But B’nai Avraham also means “Children of Abraham” and is a name often given to converts, many of whom were members of the fledgling synagogue.
The congregation rented a parlor floor apartment on Clinton Street, but the front door had to stay locked as the landlady lived upstairs. Stephen Rosen would wait at the front door to let people in for services. The congregation later moved to a commercial space on Clinton Street before finally acquiring its own home in 1996 when it purchased the brownstone at 117 Remsen St. from the neighboring Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. That synagogue had purchased a larger building with a history of its own—the old Brooklyn Club building.
One of Congregation B’nai Avraham’s crowning joys is the Mei Menachem Community Mikvah built and dedicated in 2000. It is considered one of the most beautiful and elegant mikvot in the New York area. A mikvah is a ritual bath that women use following the completion of each month’s reproductive cycles and at other occasions in the Jewish life cycle, including before her wedding. Although there are mikvot for men, Rabbi Raskin explains that the one at B’nai Avraham serves women.
Indeed, the mikvah was a major reason for honoree Deborah Hallen-Zelinsky to become part of Congregation B’nai Avraham.
“I heard about B’nai Avraham at the point when they were building a mikvah, and I donated to the building of the mikvah. It was very exciting that there was going to be not only an Orthodox congregation but also a mikvah. For me that was a very important idea and something to participate in financially.”
But her teenage daughter’s remarkable commitment to Hebrew school deepened her love for B’nai Avraham.
“In 2001, my younger daughter wanted to continue her Hebrew studies. My husband, I and our daughters are members of Congregation Mount Sinai. My younger daughter had her bat mitzvah in the spring of 2001, and wanted to continue with three of her friends in the Hebrew school. The four girls were all going to different schools, and they weren’t going to be able to get to Hebrew School at Mount Sinai. They wanted to continue, and they wanted to do it on Sunday mornings, because that is the only time that all of them would be free. One of the fathers spoke to Rabbi Raskin. And Rabbi Raskin had started a Hebrew school for these four girls. We paid the tuition. The shul was open on Sunday. He hired a teacher and we paid Hebrew school dues. That’s basically when I met Rabbi Raskin.” By now, it was fall 2001, and post 9/11.”
After her retirement, Ms. Hallen-Zelinsky started attending the Wednesday morning Women’s Torah Class. “It’s very spiritual and moving. “I feel rejuvenated after every Wednesday class. I actually plan vacations and times out of town around the Wednesday morning Torah class.”
As an educator working in the New York City schools until her retirement, Hallen-Zelinsky believes that “One thing that is really important for Jews is to build a school. When they built Kiddie Korner, (established in 1991) my husband and I donated to the building fund. It’s so important to me, I’m a retired public school teacher, and was always a member of the Orthodox Jewish Teachers Association. Not only did they build an Orthodox community 24 years ago, and a shul and a mikvah, and all these classes. Monday night is a big class night; you can also call in for them. “When I read on the Brooklyn Heights Blog that the best pre-school in Brooklyn Heights was Kiddie Korner, I was so happy. It’s wonderful to have been able to participate in the building of that.”
She also speaks of how vital the shul’s Sisterhood group is—providing meals for the community in times of need, such as for the arrival of a newborn, or to provide support during the shiva period of mourning.
Rabbi Raskin “just wanted to make it a wonderful inclusive place for Jewish people, says Hallen-Zelinsky. “He’s very big-hearted, warm, welcoming, non-threatening.” He doesn’t proselytize; he invites you.”
Likewise, honorees Amit Cohen and her husband, Paul Amit, loved the Hebrew school for their son, Raphael.
The couple met Rabbi Raskin when they sought help for getting married on a date that was special and significant to them—but one on which most rabbis would not perform a wedding. Rabbi Raskin listened to them and discussed their situation, and then decided to help them.
Later, after Raphael was born, they remembered the Kiddie Korner School that B’nai Avraham’s operate, and expressed joy that the Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife), Shternie Raskin, helped them with the admissions process. “The way we connected to the shul is through Kiddie Corner,” said Amit Cohen.
“It’s a pretty amazing school,” says Amit Cohen. “Besides all the regular program that a good school has—nice teachers, a cheerful environment….for me, for someone who is born in Israel and now lives here and raise my son in New York, it was more important to have my son learn tradition. We wanted to re-connect to our roots. Kiddie Korner provided this [foundation] to our son. They nurtured him to pray, taught him the holy days, the meaning and importance of Tzedakah.”
In fact, little Raphael was so intrigued, that he implored his parents to get him a prayer garment that many Jews consider no longer necessary—a tzitzit. A white garment with fridges on four corners, the tzitzit is worn underneath the clothing.
“He had this ritual, to put it on his body, put his clothes on, and do this especially on Fridays. Although we tried to tell him he didn’t need it, he insisted. It’s not something we told him he had to do, it just came naturally to him. I thought it was beautiful, because it’s so meaningful for him. I think this will go with him forever.”
Honoree Roger Satnick describes himself as a “Conservadox Jew. I have practiced Orthodox Judaism in the past. I have practiced every level of Judaism at different times in my life.”
A third-generation jeweler-designer, Satnick and his family have been in the Heights for more than 55 years, and in Brooklyn for more than a century. His grandfather established Satnick Jewelers in 1912 in Williamsburg. Roger Satnick recounts that when “Rabbi Raskin heard there was a Jewish family in Brooklyn, he wanted to make contact. Having a vivacious, infectious personality that he still has to do this day, he worked on me for many years, until I agreed to come.”
I kept telling him, “ ‘Rabbi, I’m not an Orthodox Jew, I’m Conservative.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter, come.’ He finally got me to come, and I was so enthralled by the beauty, the richness and the warmth of the community. It was just overwhelming. I was a vice president of a shul in Colorado; and I’ve been part of many shuls as a member; and I had never felt the warmth that I have felt in this shul. It’s something that you really need to experience for yourself.”
Satnick travels frequently and his visited many synagogues. “But, I always gravitate back to this shul in the first place, because of the rabbi; and then, because of the community! Because, the community feeds off of this. And the people who join, all have the similarity, all have this infectious, loving beauty within them; and that’s the way they want to be. It’s a beautiful thing to go to Yom Kippur, Rosh HaShanah or Simchat Torah. You know—it’s commonality.”
He adds, “For the past five years, my parents have been going to shul here on the High Holy Days. The people in the shul have embraced my parents. They know them on a first-name basis. For the limited amount of time that they have seen my parents it’s mind-boggling. People will come up to them and say, ‘Please sit with us,’ as if they’re members from the beginning. Which, to me, is the quintessential beauty of this shul. They have made them feel like old [longtime] members.”
Although not reachable for this article, honoree William C. Thompson Jr. has been a friend to the Jewish community. His father, Judge William Thompson Sr., is a founder of the advocacy group Blacks & Jews in Conversation that helped the Jewish and Caribbean and black communities heal following the 1991 Crown Heights riots. The group, whose members have given talks around New York State and the U.S., is now called Not Just Blacks & Jews in Conversation, and continues to be active. Judge Thompson—the father—also leads groups of judges to Israel, and continues a close friendship with Rabbi Raskin. Congregation B’nai Avraham honored him two years ago, he recalled with a chuckle during a conversation with the Brooklyn Eagle.
William C. Thompson, Jr., a graduate of Tufts, is well-known in New York City government, having served as Brooklyn Deputy Borough President to then BP Howard Golden. Thompson was the youngest Deputy BP at the time. BP Golden selected Thompson Jr. to represent the borough in the NYC Board of Education, and he was elected its president in 1996. He served in that role until 2001, when he ran for City Comptroller. Successful in that bid, he served as Comptroller until 2010. He ran for Mayor in 2009 and, after an arguably narrow defeat by current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Thompson has announced his bid for mayor in this year’s campaign.
Rabbi Raskin is known for inviting and welcoming newcomers—Jew and non-Jew—into their shul community, with the belief that people from vastly different backgrounds can learn from each other and become friends.